Coronavirus: Will cheap flights still be possible?

Before the coronavirus crisis put a halt to air travel, the budget airline boom had made it possible to hop onto a plane within hours of booking a ticket, sometimes paying no more than what it takes to travel by land to the same destination. Now, airlines are cautiously restarting domestic flights amid tight scrutiny by aviation authorities. The Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand, for instance, requires airlines to have passengers sitting farther apart. Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee spoke to analysts to find out what this means for the future of air travel.

Q Is this the end of budget travel? Will prices of air tickets rise?

A Analysts and observers are divided on this matter, as it will depend on new aviation rules, how long they might stay, and the level of competition in the industry.

Even if other aviation authorities follow Thailand's lead in requiring passengers to be seated farther apart, ticket prices might not rise, according to analyst Brendan Sobie at Sobie Aviation.

"You are going to have a lot of distressed airlines out there trying to generate cash with all these airplanes they are trying to return to the sky," he said, adding that these airlines will be competing with one another for customers even if they can only fill 60 to 70 per cent of their seats on each flight.

Along the way, some airlines might go belly-up.

"If there is less capacity and fewer flights, prices will go up," said Dr Mario Hardy, chief executive of Pacific Asia Travel Association. "But it will depend on demand too… This is as much an economic crisis as it is a health crisis."

Ticket prices will also depend on oil prices, which have sunk to new depths in recent weeks.

DBS Bank's aviation analyst Paul Yong does not expect air ticket prices to stay permanently higher than their pre-pandemic levels.

"Overall, the aviation sector remains highly competitive. There are always new players and new start-ups," Mr Yong said. "We may see firmer prices for a while, but eventually competition will ensure that prices stay fairly reasonable."

Q Will last-minute travel still be possible?

A Given pre-flight health checks and other requirements being imposed on international travellers, trips will likely need to be planned well in advance, said Dr Hardy.

Even if a coronavirus vaccine becomes available and is widely distributed, last-minute travel will not be as easy as before, he warned.

Ms Johanna Bonhill-Smith, a travel and tourism analyst at the London-based consultancy GlobalData, said all the new pre-flight checks may motivate travellers to venture abroad for longer periods rather than make short getaways.

"The last-minute market has been a key trend for all types of travellers," she said. "I don't think this will be the end of last-minute travel. But it may just be halted for a little while."

Q With social distancing requirements, will airlines reconfigure planes? Will economy class and business class seats start to look more alike?

A Reconfiguring planes is a big decision that can only be made when the outlook becomes clearer.

For now, there is still no conclusive research that shows how effective seating travellers apart can be in reducing virus transmission, said Dr Hardy.

Ms Bonhill-Smith thinks that even if planes are configured to seat economy travellers farther apart, airlines will still strive to keep a distinction between economy and business class seats. "It will go up their quality chain," she said.

Mr Yong said seating passengers alternately is not sustainable, pointing out that "economically it doesn't make sense for the airline in the long term".

He added: "For a typical (Airbus) A-320 budget flight with 180 seats, if we want to place people in alternate seats, you probably won't even fill half the plane."

The larger question right now is whether this global lockdown period might alter business travel patterns permanently, he said.

"With all these work-from-home measures taking place, a lot of technology has enabled conferences and connections to be made. Will this adoption and validation of technology replacing business travel structurally lower the demand for business travel?" he asked.

Demand for leisure travel, in contrast, may be more resilient than business travel. "You can't really replace the holiday experience with a digital experience," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2020, with the headline 'Will cheap flights still be possible?'. Print Edition | Subscribe